Selecting Shelter Dogs for Education Programs

Written by Paula Ferrel, CPDT-KA

When the idea of pairing shelter dogs and youth is discussed, dog training professionals generally have one of two reactions: That’s fantastic! – or – That’s risky! For decades, Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles (spcaLA) has brought amazing young people together with our wonderful shelter dogs, by carefully selecting animals for its Violence Prevention and Humane Education (VPHE) programs.1

As the VPHE coordinator, one of my responsibilities is to find and select dogs for our programs. This is a multi-step process that involves a lot of time and many different departments. We continue to update and refine our selection process based on current science, industry standards, and the needs of the organization.

If you work in a shelter or rescue of any kind, you may know how difficult it is to monitor an animal’s behavior, as there are so many factors that contribute to behavior.  I would like to share the steps we use when selecting shelter dogs for our education programs as a guide. These steps can be adapted and adjusted depending on a variety of elements such as the specific education program, staffing, time available, the dogs that are available in the shelter, and resources.

In addition to the time, expertise, and cooperation of staff, you will need a large pool of canine candidates. Last year, for example, I identified 153 possible program candidates – of those, only 97 made it to the standard assessment and only 36 of them moved on to our VPHE assessment. Of the 36 assessed for VPHE, 28 – or 18% of all dogs considered – moved on to be program dogs.

Safety first

A note about safety – if we feel a situation is overwhelming for a shelter dog, or the dog is displaying fearfulness, we can remove them from the program and replace them with another shelter dog or an owned pet, whom we refer to as an ambassador dog. Ambassador dogs have gone through all the same steps as our shelter dogs, and we’ve had many wonderful ambassadors over the years. All of our ambassadors started as shelter pets who were adopted by spcaLA staff.

spcaLA Ambassador dog Henry, with David

spcaLA Ambassador dog Little Brothe

Selection considerations

Here are some things that I consider while selecting shelter dogs:

  •   Remember the shelter is a stressful place.
  •   Can the program help this dog? Do the benefits outweigh any negatives?
  •   What are the ages of students who will be working with these shelter dogs?
  •  What is the environment like for this program? Will it be on site at the shelter or off site at a school or another facility?
  •   Is now the best time for this dog to be considered for our program, or should we try a different time in the future?

The process

1. A walk through the kennels     

Grab a clipboard and a treat pouch. Take a stroll through the kennels, toss treats, observe each dog’s reaction to you, note or make a list of any dogs that are displaying social behavior and show potential to be a program dog. Breed is not a factor: We focus on behavior. Over the many years of selecting shelter dogs, I have seen a number of trends in breeds, but every dog should be considered as an individual. 

I often walk through the kennels more than once to continue observing the dog s’ behavior and noting any changes. During the walk-through, I perform a cage presentation test, adapted from Sue Sternberg, where I stand in front of the dog’s kennel and look at the dog in a non-threatening manner. I then talk to the dog softly. I bend down and turn my body to the side, place my knuckle up against the kennel and draw a square, observing if the dog follows my hand from each corner of my imaginary square. I observe and note any body language the dog may be displaying. I toss a treat in the kennel. If available, I toss treats of different values into the kennel to see if the dog prefers one value of treat over another. If the dog appears social and friendly, I make silly noises such as “bop” or “boop” and tap the kennel bars with my finger or a pen, again observing and taking note of any reaction.

2. Reading the notes     

During the walk-through, if there were any dogs that seemed like potential candidates, I look up and read their notes via spcaLA’s computer system. I go through the notes recorded from previous owners, kennel staff, veterinarians, and the behavior and training department.  I take all of this into account. 

Some dogs may have mounds of notes, while others may not have any. It all depends on the amount of time the animal has been at the shelter. Based on research that has been done regarding cortisol levels of dogs in shelters, we would like the dog to be at the shelter for more than three days to be considered for selection for our programs. “We found that the plasma cortisol concentrations of dogs in a county animal shelter for their first, second, or third day were higher than those of dogs in the shelter for a longer period of time.” 2

Again, we take this research into account to try and ensure that the dogs are not overwhelmed by our selection process.

I especially look for the following red flags, which suggest the dogs would not be a good fit for education programs, in a dog’s notes,

  • If the dog has a bite history toward humans or dogs. When using Ian Dunbar’s bite scale, level 3 bites or higher are not considered appropriate for programs.3 Level 1 and 2 may potentially be considered, depending on the age of the dog and situation. “Levels 1 and 2 comprise well over 99% of dog incidents. The dog is certainly not dangerous and more likely to be fearful, rambunctious, or out of control.” Here we generally consider young dogs 8-months to about a year old, who may have notes regarding mouthiness and lack of manners. Generally, we do not use dogs younger than 8 months for our programs. We may have students interact with puppies 3 months and younger for the puppies’ socialization and for a cute factor. These pups just make a guest appearance, rather than remaining with the students throughout the program. Again, the age of our youth participates is a big factor here.
  • If the dog has history of aggression toward people or other dogs.
  • Notes regarding the dog being stressed or uncomfortable with handling and restraint. It is important to look at dates, and if there have been any behavior modification plans put into place; notes of the animal not being good and/or being restrained are considered. Notes from medical staff are taken seriously. I do give the dog the benefit of the doubt, considering dogs are generally being poked and prodded during medical check-in, even when using fear-free methods. Depending on the behavior noted, I may not consider that dog to be acceptable, for example if the dog has growled at multiple staff members or snapped during a medical exam. Again, every dog is unique; timing, looking at progress, and other factors are important to consider. Much of the time when reading notes I try to practice empathy for the dog, and I go with my professional gut instinct. 
  • If there are any medical notes that indicate the dogs is in pain, I generally do not consider them, as I prefer not to take the risk of putting the dog under additional stress or causing the dog to go over threshold if they are not feeling well.
  • Notes regarding resource guarding. A controversial topic, but one I would rather not risk when in our programs with youth.

3. Getting out of the kennel     

The next step is a formal assessment. But before that, we take the dog out of the kennel for a short walk so they can eliminate, stretch their legs, and sniff a bit. Here we are looking at a number of things. To get the dog out, we enter the kennel.  We observe any behavior as staff enters the kennel: how easy it is to leash the dog and exit the kennel; monitoring the dog’s strength; if the dog is appropriate for the age range we are working with. We are monitoring to see how often a dog is marking which is mostly important if we are working in an indoor facility. We are looking to see if, while out of the kennel, the dog makes any voluntary social contact; we note if they appear to be shy, fearful, hyper vigilant or reactive to people and dogs. Sometimes, based on the dog’s behavior outside of the kennel, we do not go through with an assessment.

4. Behavior evaluation     

The VPHE staff perform a standard behavior evaluation with a staff member from the Behavior and Training Department. The behavior evaluation we use is based on research done by Kelly Bollen and Joseph Horowitz, a modified version of Sue Sternberg’s Assess-A-Pet protocol. I know there is a lot of research out there that does not find assessments to be useful for placing animals for adoption. However, because these animals are already up for adoption, this does not apply. If an animal does not pass an assessment or any other stage of our process, the dog is not appropriate for our program. They are still available for adoption.

There are several parts of this assessment:

  •       Sociability test
  •       Teeth exam
  •       Handling test
  •       Arousal test
  •       Food bowl test
  •       Possession test
  •       Stranger test
  •       Dog to dog test

If at any time throughout the assessment we feel the dog would not be safe, the dog is not ready, or the dog would not be appropriate for programs, we stop the assessment. If the dog does well throughout the assessment, we continue on to a second assessment – the VPHE evaluation – which is a little more invasive and allows us to observe the dog in more realistic situations that can happen while working with youth. This assessment is adapted and has been modified from a very old version of Sue Sternberg’s Assess-A-Pet protocol. Note that throughout the standard assessment, the dog is able to take breaks and get water, and we reward the dog throughout the assessment. Our VPHE evaluation consist of a variety of tests:

  •       Handling and restraint
  •       Motivation and trainability
  •       Response to unplanned stressful situations

5. Paperwork and communication      

Once a dog has gone through both assessments, we write up the dog for a medical exam by our veterinarian. This allows our veterinarian to reexamine the animal to make sure they are healthy enough to participate in our program. 

At this point, we communicate with all staff that the dog has been selected to be used for our program. They are available for adoption but will be on a hold (not able to go home) until the program is over. Before the pandemic, we invited the adopters of our program dogs to attend the program graduation and visit their pet at the shelter (now adopters get videos and photos instead), and they get a certificate for their dog after graduation. Adopters receive information on the program and the importance of their newly adopted dog’s role in the program. This also give adopters time to make any new dog purchases, adapt their house, and prepare for their new family member. The dog is also getting some basic training, and through our interactions the staff is learning more about the dog; this information is passed on to the new adopter.

Keeping dogs on hold may or may not work for your shelter. Having run these programs for a number of years, I can say that one of the major benefits our students receive throughout our programs is working with the same shelter dog, building a solid relationship and allowing the students to see progress.

Hannahlei’s adopters at their TLC program graduation

It’s always important to ask: Do the benefits outweigh any negatives? The hold period is a potential negative. Often we have dogs who stay long-term, sometime just because of the dog’s age or breed. We tend to get a high number of Pit Bulls and Chihuahuas in our shelter, some older, and this generally deters adopters. Something that catches an adopter’s attention is that they are participating in our programs, so they may stand out among other shelter dogs of similar age and breed, which is a benefit in this case.

6. Fit for gear     

Each dog working in our program is fitted with a harness, leash, and collar. During this time, our VPHE staff take the dog out and spend time with the dog, getting to know more about their personality. We fit them for the above items, and throughout the entire interaction we are still monitoring and observing the dog to determine suitability. Putting on the dog’s gear is a staff job, but it is something that will need to be done each day. So, if we find that the dog is fearful of the gear, or does not seem comfortable with the handling to put the gear on, we can decide whether or not to continue to use the dog.

7. Out and about with other program dogs     

For most of our programs, we need between four and six shelter dogs. We try our best to find this number, but we also like to have choices. Therefore, we try to find one or two extra dogs so we can determine what dogs will work best for our program needs. One way to help determine this is by getting all the dogs out and around one another. At our facility, we have a large grass yard.  We also have a large auditorium that works as well. We gather as many VPHE staff as possible and get assistance from kennel staff or behavior and training staff. All dogs are wearing their gear, and each staff member has high-value rewards. We all meet in the yard, where we do a few laps, keeping our distance, and then do some basic training with the dogs. Here      we are looking to see how food-motivated the dog is. If they do not want food, are they social? Will they work for affection or do they just want to cuddle? Will they stay with the handler? Do they get distracted or become reactive toward the other dogs? Can they be redirected or do they eventually settle? We also re-examine the dog’s strength, and how they behave on leash. For our programs, the students are generally holding the leash, and we work in a large, open space, so making sure that the dog is manageable for our students is important. Depending on time and available staff, we try to get the dogs out around one another more than once.

8. Additional training and interaction     

After having the dogs out around one another, we have a solid idea of what dogs will be used for the programs. Then, we take them out individually and begin to do some basic training, introducing them to a clicker, sit, down, hand touch, and watch. Most of our dogs do not have any formal training, and to help our students be successful we give the dogs starter skills. We also work on crate training, because      many times      we have to travel off site for our programs (pre-pandemic) and dogs will be housed in crates in a vehicle and in a classroom. Getting the dog adjusted to being in the crate helps them transition to an unfamiliar environment. During this time, we are still monitoring the dog’s behavior and suitability for our program. Sometimes we may need to create training plans and provide additional enrichment to ensure the dogs stay behaviorally healthy and happy. Depending on the dog, that can mean working more on crate time, being fostered for a few days by staff, ensuring the dog goes for an extra walk or has time to burn off some energy before being worked with and a variety of other things based on the dog’s needs.

9. Meeting the students     

At this point, our team has done a lot of work to ensure the dog is prepared for our program, but now comes the real test. On the first day of the program, our students are given a lesson on dog behavior and communication, how to meet a dog, and a lesson on positive reinforcement training. After these lessons, the students are able to meet the dogs. We have the students break up into small groups with two to four students per group, depending on the number of students in the program. VPHE staff and volunteers bring the dogs out, one dog per group. The students are instructed to observe the dog’s behavior, and wait for the dog to approach them. They can offer the dog food or rewards and give light, gentle petting. Here we normally have one adult per dog, plus one or two VPHE staff observing from a distance. At this time we are continuing to monitor the dogs’ behavior to see if they will be comfortable working with our students. Sometimes we schedule two days of meeting and introductions to the dogs;  this allows us to continue to observe and monitor, and it also helps us identify the dogs’ comfort level around specific students. If all the dogs seem solid, the next day we create a dog training team by pairing the shelter dog with the students we feel would be best for them based on the dog’s personality and the students, and also based on the dog’s reaction to the students. It is a bit cliché, but often it’s our dogs who choose the students, not the students who choose the dogs. Students do communicate to us what dogs they would enjoy working with, but we have the final say for the safety of all involved.

10. Working with the students in a group training setting     

Because our environments are often unpredictable, we are always continuing to monitor the behavior of our shelter dogs and our students. For most of our programs, we generally have enough staff or volunteers for one adult per dog. Although the students are the ones training the dogs, the more staff  the better. If at any time we feel the dog is not enjoying the program or is displaying some concerning behavior, the dog can be removed and replaced with an ambassador dog.

What makes spcaLA programs unique is that we use shelter pets, and our students work hard to get them adopted. The pride our students take in training their shelter dog is undeniable. There is so much love, empathy, and dedication that goes into working with their dog. 

This article is dedicated in loving memory of Little Brother and Henry, two of the original ambassador dogs, who touched hundreds of students’ lives working in our programs. Your loving temperament and willingness to work for cheese and hot dogs will always be remembered in our department.


  1. Ferrel, P. (2020) Empathy, antecedent arrangements, and fun! What to think about when working with youth clients. The IAABC Foundation Journal 15.
  2. Hennessey, M.B. et al (1997). Plasma cortisol levels of dogs at a county animal shelter. Physiology & Behavior 62:3, 485-490.
  3. Dunbar, I. An assessment of the severity of biting problems based on an objective evaluation of wound pathology.

Paula Ferrel, CPDT-KA is the Violence Prevention and Humane Education Coordinator with spcaLA, and has been working for spcaLA since 2006. She has an Associates of Science degree in Child Development and a Bachelor of Science degree in Humane Leadership. Over the span of her career with spcaLA, working for the City of Gardena Recreation Department, and volunteering for other organizations, Paula has gained professional experience working with youth of a variety of ages. Paula is also a proud parent and knows how important youth and dog safety are. Throughout her career, she has gained an extensive amount of experience working with youth and shelter dogs. Selecting dogs for educations programs is something Paula has been doing for the past decade.